So I’ve never read any of the Harry Potter books–and I know, I know, that makes me culturally illiterate–but nonetheless, I went ahead and saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1: The Fellowship of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And there’s this scene in which the not-actually-titular fellowship is about to move Harry to a safe-house, and there is serious planning afoot. And some guy we’ve never seen before says something sort of off-topic, to which Alastor Moody replies, “Zip it, Mundungus!”
“Who the fuck is Mundungus?” I whispered to the Potter-literate friend sitting to my left.
“Oh, he’s been in the series since about the fifth book,” he replied. “He’s… a problem.”
“Oh,” I said. “So was he played by a different actor in the other movies? I don’t recognize him.”
“Um,” he said. “No, he wasn’t in the other movies.”
“Yeah, I guess this is how they’re introducing him.”
I really had no idea what to say, other than “They can’t do that,” which of course they can, because they did. But this was unconventional storytelling, to say the least, and it had to mean one of two things:
1. The Harry Potter movies are meant as addenda to the books, an understanding of the latter being prerequisite if the former is to make a lick of sense. In this case, the films strive to be well-made, but not autonomous.
2. The Harry Potter movies are cynical cash-grabs, defying all manner of screenwriting logic because the intended audience already knows the plot and, more to the point, will readily pay to see the films no matter how much they suck. In this case, it makes no difference whether or not the films are well-made; if the consumer doesn’t care, then why should the producer?
Whether Harry Potter 7-1 is a quirky adaptation full of fan service, or a half-assed adaptation full of profit-motivated contempt, the “Zip it, Mundungus” moment serves as a yardstick for what not to do when adapting a work from one medium to another. In short: You’ve got to be canny and decisive about what you choose to excise, and equally, about what you choose to leave in. If you’ve left a peripheral character out of six of your eight movies, then you can probably get by without him for the remaining two.
Countless adaptions have suffered from being excessively faithful to their source material. When Zack Snyder says that the length of each shot in his film version of Watchmen corresponds to the size of a panel from Alan Moore’s original comic–that’s bad. Just because it works on the page doesn’t mean that it will work on film; indeed, the pacing and structure of Watchmen are meant to be peculiar to comics, and thus untranslatable. If there are vital things from the book that refuse to work in a movie, then you either replace them with something that will work or, as Alan Moore famously counseled Terry Gilliam in regards to Watchmen, think hard about whether you should be making the movie in the first place.
Generally speaking, the best adaptations are the ones that boldly leave things out. The film version of Everything Is Illuminated wisely leaves out an entire parallel narrative from the book. Because those who want to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book can read it, and those who want to watch Liev Schreiber’s film can watch it. One is a loving adaptation of the other, but they’re not one and the same, for goodness’ sake.
Even Peter Jackson’s massive adaptation of The Lord of the Rings leaves a fair amount out, as any Tom Bombadil fan will attest. And that trilogy would not have gained anything of value if Saruman, just before dying, had turned to our heroes and screamed, “Zip it, Bombadil!”
“Who the fuck is Tom Bombadil?” someone would have whispered to his slightly embarrassed, Elvish-speaking friend.